First Draft’s collaborative CrossCheck project built to a climax in the last week of the campaign – highlighting issues with voting at polling stations on election day, disinformation used to discredit marginalised voices, and how a hospital became the focal point of disinformation just days before the election, write Clea Skopeliti and Lydia Morrish.
The last six weeks leading up to the vote had come with multiple controversies to the detriment of quality information.
Political parties battled each other with parody websites, fake newspapers and doctored videos; Facebook ads containing misleading claims spread far and wide; and fabricated or imposter tweets surfaced after the London Bridge terror incident and throughout the campaign.
Voter suppression claims and fake predictions on election day
On election day, First Draft was on the lookout for polling-related disinformation across the country, with a focus on claims of voter suppression and disturbances at booths. Here’s some of what we found.
Social media users spread disinformation about the date of the election, a common tactic seen in elections globally. There were tweets spreading rumours that different parties’ supporters should vote on different days – fortunately, none of the posts identified gained significant traction.
And, of course, no disinformation election is complete without imposter accounts.
An account masquerading as poll aggregator Britain Elects circulated fake polling predictions on Twitter using the handle @brianelects. It even went as far as to use Twitter’s new feature of hiding replies for anyone who called out the falsehoods.
Elsewhere, a fake exit poll forecast by Twitter account @MomentumCV predicted a Labour victory before the official exit poll numbers surfaced. The @brianelects post has since been taken down.
New! Exit Poll Forecast 2019.General Election Exit Poll prediction for 2019 for all 650 constituencies.Current Forecast Prediction: LABOUR 327CONS 258SNP 34LIB DEM 9OTHERS 22Labour overall majority of 4.#VoteLabour #LBC #skynews #PollingDay #GE2019 #ExitPolls
— Colin Valley #CorbynOutrider (@MomentumCV) December 12, 2019
An editor at left-leaning outlet Novara Media claimed “thousands” of people were turned away from polling stations for not having their polling card or identification but First Draft was unable to verify this claim.
There were genuine, isolated cases of people wrongly asked for identification or polling cards at voting booths in England, Scotland and Wales. While ID is required to vote in Northern Ireland, it is not in the rest of the UK.
In Scotland, a council became a source of misinformation relating to the voter process after Perth and Kinross wrongly advised voters on social media that they needed ID to vote. The authority later apologised and reassured voters they could cast their ballot without identification.
Apologies for any confusion regarding bringing ID to Polling Stations, the Council would like to confirm that it is not required in order to vote today
— Perth & Kinross Council (@PerthandKinross) December 12, 2019
In a case verified by First Draft, a voter in East Hertfordshire could only cast their ballot once he complained and after polling station staff contacted the council directly.
Have you received a letter like this after trying to register to vote? Have you moved address in the same constituency? Go and vote. My boy got this letter and still went to the polls, was told he can’t vote. Got them to call up and double check. Guess what... plz RT #GE2019 pic.twitter.com/gGsl58LmKr
— Mark Crown (@kingcrowney) December 12, 2019
While many of these were isolated incidents, there were several reports of issues with student voter registration at Cardiff University and Southampton University, where hundreds were unable to vote after administrative errors.
Think ‘SHEEP’ before you share
Given that it only takes the click of a button to share something online, people rarely stop to fully scrutinise the content they share, particularly if they agree with it. Throughout the six weeks of election campaigning, social media users in the UK shared falsehoods online in droves.
To help people protect themselves from spreading content containing spin, propaganda and outright disinformation online, First Draft assembled a mnemonic to help people remember to stop and check.
Scrutinising a social media post’s source and its history, any evidence provided to back up its claims, whether it relies on emotion to make a point and its use of pictures, we believe, can prevent people from amplifying mis- and disinformation.
SHEEP is a handy acronym to remember the essential checks to carry out before hitting ‘share’.
Leeds General Infirmary becomes a focal point of an election hoax
A Yorkshire Evening Post story about a photo of a four-year-old boy lying on the floor of a hospital in Leeds dominated the beginning of the news cycle during election week after it became the springboard for misreporting and a viral hoax.
With disinformation coming from both official and unofficial sources, the incident was a microcosm for issues around the quality of information circulating in the election on the whole.
The issue became the centre of a controversy after Boris Johnson pocketed an ITV reporter’s phone who had attempted to show the PM the photo. The incident was shared widely but it was quickly overtaken by two separate pro-Conservative disinformation campaigns.
First, high-profile journalists including Robert Peston and Laura Kuenssberg, ITV and BBC political editors respectively, reported that a Labour activist at the Leeds hospital had punched an advisor to the health secretary.
However, footage soon emerged showing the advisor accidentally walking into the activist’s hand. Both political editors deleted the tweets and acknowledged their errors, saying their information had come from “senior Tories”.
The photo of the four-year-old boy then became the centre of a coordinated conspiracy theory that claimed the image was staged by leftwing political group Momentum. On Tuesday, mysterious Facebook and Twitter accounts shared copy-and-pasted statements, including one claiming to know a nurse who had information that the image was orchestrated.
This spread across social media despite the hospital accepting and apologising for the event.
Disinformation: a ‘vehicle’ to undermine marginalised voices
Abuse of MPs has increased significantly since the 2016 referendum, particularly for ethnic minorities and women.
In the lead-up to the election, we found misleading claims, edited videos and conspiracy theories targeting Diane Abbott and David Lammy. These included attributing fake quotes to Abbott, a lie about Lammy’s expenses and the falsehood that he fell asleep in parliament.
Azmina Dhrodia, the author of an influential Amnesty International report on abuse of British female MPs, drew a direct correlation between disinformation, abuse and the prejudice facing minority MPs.
“This disinformation acts to fuel the underlying discrimination that exists offline,” she told First Draft. “It’s all just manifesting online — disinformation is just another vehicle to perpetuate that.”